Their own powerful encounters with the living God must continually lead consecrated men and women to share this life-altering experience with others – and not hide it away – especially as they minister to the faithless and those who live in society’s margins, said Benedictine Abbot Justin Brown, speaking during the homily of the Feb. 11 Mass marking the local celebration of the World Day for Consecrated Life.
Abbot Justin, repeating Pope Francis’ reminder to the consecrated that they are called “first and foremost to be men and women of encounter,” said those who choose religious life are uniquely positioned to make the Gospel more visible.
“By our lives of prayer, community and service, we are witnesses to that life-changing encounter with Jesus, enabling us to make that encounter possible for others,” Abbot Justin said.
“Our life of prayer, community and service must be rooted in that encounter with Jesus – the face of divine love and mercy – if we are to enable others to meet Jesus, to have an authentic encounter with him.”
While consecrated life “in its very essence” should proclaim and promote this culture of encounter, religious men and women can become disheartened in the face of a culture that promotes the opposite: isolation and division.
This inward-turning, self-reverential culture would be “foreign to the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures and to the Gospel of Jesus,” said Abbot Justin, pointing to the Mass’ reading from Isaiah, which exhorts the faithful to break through the cynical and dark world by being “light.”
“And (there) we learn of God’s great concern for the hungry, the oppressed and the homeless,” Abbot Justin said. “If we wish to encounter this God and share in his divine life, we must act: feed the hungry; shelter and welcome the oppressed and homeless; and clothe the naked. Isaiah would tell us that we become God’s light in the world, (but) only to the extent that we encounter the other.”
All are fed, none left out
The Mass’ selected Gospel reading – St. Mark’s account of the multiplication of loaves and fishes – reveals how Jesus once again places himself squarely within a culture of encounter.
“The encounter (in this case) is with a great crowd,” Abbot Justin said. “His heart is moved for they are hungry. He feeds them all, none are left out, all are within his embrace. As always, he encounters others in their need, in their brokenness and he never turns them away.”
Abbot Justin observed that the only thing that prevents people from encountering Jesus is self-righteousness and pride, or what he described as “having the heart of the scribe or Pharisee” – being someone who seeks division.
“As religious men and women we are to have the heart of Jesus, moved with pity for every crowd, moved to encounter them,” he said, noting that these “crowds” take many shapes.
Sometimes those shut out by the consecrated can be the very brothers and sisters with whom they live, Abbot Justin said. Avoiding the “crowd” also could mean not giving 100 percent to those entrusted to the care of men and women religious: groups including the young, the elderly, the poor, the homeless, the unwanted, the abused, the sick, the imprisoned and those fleeing violence and oppression.
“In this culture of encounter, in this Gospel living, no one is left behind, no one is rejected,” he said.
Prison ministry humbles
Nearly 200 sisters, brothers and religious order priests gathered inside St. Joseph Abbey Church in Covington to celebrate their special vocational calling with one another and with the Mass’ principal celebrant, Archbishop Gregory Aymond.
On her way to the post-liturgical luncheon in the monks’ refectory, Religious of the Sacred Heart Sister Judith Vollbrecht said encounter is at the very heart of her Tuesday afternoon ministry of prayer, study and fellowship with incarcerated women in Orleans Parish Prison.
“I just thank God for it every time because I learn so much from (the imprisoned) about what life is probably like for the majority of people in the world,” said Sister Judith, who says it is “humbling” to see those whom she serves grow in faith over time and in the most difficult of circumstances. Virtues such as patience, generosity and welcoming the stranger often come to light within prison walls, she said.
“I tell them, ‘Every time I look at you I see the face of Jesus,’” Sister Judith said. “There’s a simplicity to some of them. They’re searching for meaning in their lives and trying to figure out where to go from there. Some of them say they can’t handle it, but they have no choice,” said Sister Judith, recalling how a recent discussion of Christ’s promise to be present “where two or three are gathered in my name” moved some inmates to tears.
“They say, ‘I’m so grateful that you came,’” Sister Judith said. “It’s encouraging for me to realize that something that I’m doing really does reach them and maybe helps them to find God in a new way.”
On the front lines
Archbishop Aymond said that while men and women religious serve in varied pastoral settings, they all “serve God’s people and feed them in faith.”
“Thank you for being willing to be on the front lines – in prayer, in service and in sacrifice – and for truly being the hands and the heart of Christ,” the archbishop said.
Sister of Mount Carmel Beth Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Office of Religious, told her peers that it was exciting to be able to celebrate the Mass on the northshore, now home to nearly 90 religious.
Sister Beth agreed with an observation made by St. Joseph Abbey’s recently deceased abbot, Patrick Regan: “Living in community fosters growth.”
“We gather today to celebrate the human and spiritual growth that living in community brings to all of us!” Sister Beth said.
Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.